6am and I’m getting my sneakers on with a heart that is simultaneously heavy and aflutter. I didn’t even know that was possible until the morning of June 20th, 2009, one day before my 26th birthday, one day before Father’s Day. I made my way back to the Bronx to my Aunt’s house, where I was meeting her and my brother for the hour+ road trip up to Fishkill to visit (and meet) my father for the first time, that I could actively remember. I was wracked with nerves, but I knew that I wanted to do this. I knew that I NEEDED to do this. So we piled into my Aunt’s minivan, but not before my brother asked me if I wanted to share an “herbal remedy” with him to help calm the nerves a bit. A few minutes later, we were on our way, our spirits lifted.
As we got on the highway, my brother and I began talking. He told me some things about his life, and I shared some about mine. Some of the struggles, some of the joys, some of our accomplishments. He told me that he had known about me his whole life. That his mother always mentioned me, and that she shared pictures with him of the few times that we had spent together when he was just a toddler. How he actually had had a relationship with our father. My father lived with them for a while before he was arrested and fled the country. How he and his mother had even considered calling radio stations in our area asking them to broadcast my name so that I knew that they cared and that they were looking for me, hoping that somehow that would reconnect us after all those years. I’m sitting there listening to him, and thinking, “And I just assumed you existed. I never really KNEW!” He told me how my father used to call him almost every day, and then over time the calls started dwindling, until ultimately birthday and holidays were spent with him sitting by the phone waiting for a phone call that would never come. I didn’t know what was worse. Knowing that you had a father out there that didn’t care anymore, or knowing that you had a father out there that never cared in the first place. We still haven’t compared notes on that. Too painful.
We pulled off the highway, stopped at the ATM and made change for small bills at the gas station, and drove the mile and half to the correctional facility. We left all of our stuff in lockers, passed through security, gave them the DIN (Department Identification Number for inmates in NYS correctional facilities) and made our way through a series of checkpoints before we were all escorted into what looked like a huge dining hall with small square tables. There were 4 chairs at each table. 3 blue, 1 brown. All the brown chairs were on the same side of the tables, facing the correction officer seated at the front and looking like a judge. We were asked to sit in blue chairs and wait. One by one, inmates starting filing into the room. Every time I looked at one of them, I wondered, “Is that him!?!”, but immediately knew that it wasn’t. About 8 or so inmates walked in until finally, I looked up, and saw him. He had sensitive eyes like mine and my brothers. He had a nose that I recognize from my own face and my brothers face, but no one else’s. Every one knew I was his daughter because of my nose. The forehead, the cheekbones, the same ears. It was wild seeing yet another reflection of me. My brother and I stood up, tears instantly in our eyes, and my father began to walk quickly to us, and we moved even quicker towards him, and we all got scolded by the officers for moving to fast, and then there we were, in his clutch, grasping at missed years suddenly tangible between us, all crying and sobbing for the luck of finding each other, finally, after so much time, and all tearful in the anticipation that life after this moment would feel more…more whole.
“OK inmate. Enough contact”
What a way to burst our bubble of bliss. We had been reunited after all this time, and we couldn’t even enjoy it. It became suddenly very real that this was not the ideal way to meet your father for the first time that you can remember, but we did the best we could with whatever limitations we had. We talked for the next 5 hours about what life was like for each of us over a few bags of chips and lukewarm soda. How my brother and I grew up. The memories that I thought were dreams, and my father confirming that they did in fact happen. All of them. We talked about how things went down, why he denied me and left my mother, how he realized that he had made a mistake a few months in and tried to go back and reconcile. He told me that he loved my mother but that he was scared. He said that the day that I was born, he showed up at the hospital ready to be a father with gifts and flowers and cards for my mother and for me, having gotten a new apartment and a new job, and my grandfather (who was a total gangster at the time and was no one to be messed with) threatened his life and told him he was never to contact my mother or me ever again or “he would see his life flash before his eyes”. There was a machete involved. At 21 years old, he was petrified of the reputation that preceded my grandfather and didn’t bother to come back around. He told me that he waited for some time for things to smooth out and allowed the dust to settle before he tried to contact my mother again. My uncle kept him in the loop and gave him several pictures of me during the next few months. And finally, at 9 months old, my 19 year old mother contacted him and told him that if he wanted to see me, he would have to do it in the next hour while my grandparents were out running some errands. He tells this story as if it is one of his most treasured memories, and the feeling I get when he tells it, lets me know that it really is.
He shows up in the evening, and my mother puts me in his arms. He recognizes my face as his own, and cuddles me, feeds me a bottle and sings me a song. I fall asleep on his chest and he stares at my eyelashes for the next several minutes. He said one of his tears landed near my eye and it made it look like I was crying, and that it broke his heart. And as he tells the story, tears well up in his eyes and I know that he is sad that he missed so much time. I know that he regrets the choices he has made in his life. I know that he is hurting now as much as we hurt all those days without him there. And I feel sorry for him. Even though I know that it was no ones fault but his own, I feel so, so sorry for him. And for my brother. And for myself. And we all hold hands and cry and realize that our time is winding down and that we don’t know when the next time will be that we see each other. So we hug, and we kiss goodbye, and this ache in my heart is bigger than it was before I got here, because now that the wounds have been stitched up and are healing, the shock has worn off and the adrenaline dwindles and now all you have left is pain. Searing pain.
I wanted to believe everything my father said that day, but I couldn’t. I had to call people and confirm. My uncles told me it was all true. My grandfather told me it was all true. I still haven’t asked my mother. I feel that it’s too personal for her. She’s a secret keeper, that woman. My grandfather threatening him being confirmed was all I needed. I would have feared him too. So I wrote to my father. Monthly for almost 2 years. Each time, I told him something about my childhood that I thought would interest him. I told him how I loved to sing, was good at it and would often have roles in school musicals. I told him how I was an athlete and had awards and trophies and different colored karate belts. I told him how I was in a relationship and how I was happy. I told him about my family and the trips we took. I mentioned my depression and my hospital stays and subsequent healing. I told him everything I thought was important so that he could get a real glimpse of who I am. And every time, within 3 days, I had a letter in my hand telling me how proud he was of me of what I had accomplished and how terribly devastated he was that he had missed so much. I asked him the pressing questions that I needed to know so badly, and he answered them, always honestly and delicately, even when it was things that he thought I didn’t want to hear. “Now that I have you back in my life, I don’t want to lose you over dishonesty and omission. I want a clean slate, a fresh start, a father-daughter relationship like we should have been afforded so long ago.”
Over time, the letters dwindled, mostly my fault. I don’t think anyone has any idea unless they are in this situation, how incredibly difficult it is to foster a relationship with someone who is confined behind 4 walls, who has their mail screened, who has their visits and all interactions monitored. It had been a year since I had written him, and it wasn’t until Callie had gotten pregnant that I finally decided to write. It was a difficult letter to write. Not because I wasn’t beyond excited that we were expecting 2 amazing little boys, but because I didn’t want him to get excited about being a grandfather, when really, in my eyes, he wasn’t. I wrote the letter anyway, and completely avoided the term “grandfather” altogether. He wrote back and told me that he was going before the parole board and that he would more than likely be release on good behavior. That his release would be scheduled for September of 2015, and that despite all of the good news in our lives, the bad news was that our reunion would yet again be cut short because as soon as he got paroled, he would be boarding a plane and would be deported back to the Dominican Republic since he is not a citizen of the United States.
Over the next few months I sent him pictures of ultrasounds, pictures of Callie, pictures of the day we got married and told him how things were going. He seemed excited and always called himself “abuelo” although I still wasn’t confortable with him donning the title. How can you be an abuelo that they count on and trust when you didn’t have the capacity to be that kind of father? I justified it by saying that “abuelo” was formal like “Padre” which is what I call him, and not informal like “Wito” and “Papi” which is what I call my dad. I started noticing that maybe I wasn’t over the abandonment that I felt, even after the 6 years of hearing all of the stories and the reasons, and understanding the way things turned out, and feeling at peace with it. It’s something I think I’ll always have to sort through, always have to feel a certain way about. Something I’ll let go of and hold on to for dear life, all at the same time.
September 16th, 2015 I get a Facebook message from a paternal cousin telling me that my father was released, was being transported to Buffalo, NY, and that he would be in the Dominican Republic as of 10/1/015, a phone number to reach him and a plea to please, please, please reach out to him. On 10/2/15, I picked up my phone, and dialed the 10 digit number that would connect me with my father…
(TO BE CONTINUED…)